A week with the Hopi and Navajo

In the days of the dwindling dollar, I am unresigned to giving up the tang of foreign atmospheres. Nor will I pay outlandish rates to stay in the cinderblock shelters which America calls motels. At a time of escalating gasoline costs, I will not forego vacations in places reachable only by private car, nor will I now continue to cajole friends and family to visit the Southwest with me. I satisfied my longing to see Hopi and Navaho reservations and savored their cultural richness and their assimilating ways -- all in about a week without a feeling of if-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Window-Rock.

My trip, made with astonishingly compatible people -- was in the rented station wagon of Learning Adventures, an easygoing outfit offering tours of the West. Guides were the principals, former National Park Service staffers Alan Stumpf, a wildlife biologist and anthropologist; and Mike Fox, Kris Kristofferson look-alike and Western businessman. Besides being extraordinarily warm and knowledgeable, they proved superb meat and potato cooks who enticed the three female travelers to match their great outdoors appetites.

Traveling 662 miles of Arizona in six days, we went from Flagstaff to the Wupatki Ruins, to Betatakin and Canyon de Chelly and the Hopi mesas with their ceremonials at a cost, meals included, of $487.

The journey began when we were whisked off via pick-up truck from our hotel at 7 a.m., leaving the palms of Phoenix for the ponderosa pines at the edge of Coconino National Forest 10 miles north of Flagstaff. I fought off thirst by listening to Stumpf's fount of geological knowledge.

We stopped briefly at the Museum of Northern Arizona, where we found relevant dioramas had been removed for construction of a new beamed ceiling, and moved on to Sunset Crater Park. One sees the crater standing out in contrast to the snow-topped San Francisco peaks around it, while still far off on the highway.

A scenic reminder of the 2-million-year history of volcanic activity in north-central Arizona, it last erupted 900 years ago, raining ash and cinders, as did Mt. St. Helens more recently. Millennia later, Arizonans are enjoying a legacy of excellent moisture-retaining farmland and useful cinders that are spread instead of sand and salt on icy winter highways.

Aside from trees and other stray vegetation, the area is much as it was just after eruption -- dull gray volcanic rocks are littered with dead lightning-charred trees which cannot resist the wind.

Cinders crunching beneath our feet, talctasting park mineral water on our tongues, we explored the ice cave or lava tube. Going was slow and the lights beaming from our miners caps did not illuminate much of a show. With my mandatory hard hat clinking on the rock and the ice numbing my hands and threatening my step, I turned back without making the complete round trip of the 225 feet.

Wupatki, 16 miles away, was a more engaging experience. The ruins wait in an area whose sandstone-colored earth and basalt-shaded shrubs are the color of ancient pottery. It is desolate, uncompromising, yet throbbing as if the spirits of the vanished remained.

Almost camouflaged on the red plain, the Wupatki ruin sits as stolidly as if it were growing from the rock. In some spots it has eroded to its foundations, in other sections it rises to several stories of soft flat sandstone.

Characteristic of Pueblo dwellings, rooms, some with ovens for cooking or warmth, were built one atop another. One can walk a path through the site and peer into the chambers, although much of the structure, which would crumble and slide under tourist sneakers, is forbidden.

Some say villages like Wupatki were the inspiration for the "cities of gold" which tantalized Cortes. What is more certain is that 1,000 years ago a people known as the Anasazi (the ancient ones) began to build cities of adobe in the glazing Southwest sun. Families joined their houses together into structures of many rooms -- early apartment houses -- until a whole village dwelt in the same shelter.

Most current theories say the complex was settled around AD 600 by a group which, whether they were Anasazi or others, came to be known as the Sinagua (without water). Around 1064 the volcanic eruption forced them to flee, but they returned when they found the ash good for farming. At its apex during the 1100s, it contained over 100 rooms and in some places was three stories high.

For about 100 years, Wupatki was a cultural crossroads. Just north of the main ruin is a rounded structure which may have been a ball court or a kiva, a place of worship. Throughout the trip, entry into existing kivas was forbidden. These are holy places and not for the merely curious.

About the year 1200 people abandoned Wupatki, part of a general abandonment of pueblos in the 12th and 13th centuries. This migration mystifies scholars. There does not appear to have been a disease or drought at the time, though the volcanic cinder may have quickly become sterile. Stumpf's theory, admittedly one with contemporary relevance, is that the Sinagua used up available fuel and were forced to move down into canyons such as Betatakin where they were better protected from the elements.

We made the 128-mile trip to the Betatakin campground on US Highway 160, driving through the desert with its pastel palette and onto the Navajo Reservation. Only an occasional pickup joined us on the road, though a few persons and burros walked alongside it.Navajos have a reputation for being independent, or uncooperative, depending on one's viewpoint, and most homes -- round hogans, some made of modern materials and a few sporting TV antennae -- are located off by themselves.

The next morning, waiting to join the ranger's tour to Betatakin, Stumpf led us to a rock terrace just a little past the campground."We'll find primitive potsherds," he promised, and sure enough, we found a concentration of rock flakes and pottery bits.He imagined that some youth on his way to see a girlfriend had found a rock suitable for making an arrow and had sat down to shape it. Whether or not that story is true, erosion is constantly blowing away soil and yielding such "lithic scatters" or impromptu workshops which the moderately alert can find today.

Refreshed by a rest and early lunch, we headed for Betatakin. The ranger, a young archaeologist named Elizabeth Oster, adding poetic insight to scholarship, pointed out that the canyon was actually the dunes of an ancient sea and the rock which surrounded us were millions of grains of sand compressed into stone. Since water trickles down through the rock at a rate of about a foot per year, what we were to find at the bottom had been at the top when the Anasazi lived there.

With the sun-bleached shale above, we felt we were penetrating a Shangri-La where aspen trees grew below the timber line. The deeper we went, the lusher it grew, becoming a grove of vivid wildflowers and warbling birds. Beyond this shelter Betatakin, "ledge house" in Navajo, was hewn into the rock. At its apex , between AD 1250 and 1300 the cliff dwelling encompassed 135 rooms including living quarters, granaries, and ceremonial chambers. It was a rooftop culture --rooms are windowless and too cramped to enable much more than sitting.

Entry into this complex is now, as then, over the trash pile, a fact that belies the notion that Indians were natural preservers of beauty. In fact, their garbage -- corn husks and plants -- was biodegradable and is detectable now only by technology, but their method of disposal was simply to toss it outside the window, much as in medieval European cities. The piles also became burial places, not in disrespect, but because the material was more yielding than the surrounding rock.

We crossed the Utah border and drove through Monument Valley Tribal Park to the visitors center -- through buttes, mesas, canyons and rock formations sculptured by 25 million years of wear. Their might and massiveness, their unyielding existence, is such that I couldn't imagine, that a field of sphinxes could be more awesome.

Experiencing the canyon the next day revived us, however. Looking over the rim, a distance of 25 miles at its widest point, we peered down on sheep herders and ranchers, into a white plastered pueblo cliff dwelling called the White House. A happy valley peace has overtaken Canyon de Chelly (the name is a Spanish corruption of a Navajo word) although it was the place where Kit Carson discovered the Navajo and rounded them up for their forced Long March to exile.

Under a turquoise sky we hiked down the zigzagging trail through a tunnel which opens on a view of corrals and a hogan and encountered a little cat which answered to Musi --Navajo for kitty. White House ruin was smaller but more intact than Betatakin.

We took the drive along the rim and stopped at overlooks to Spider Rock, home of Navajo spirits, and Antelope House, so-called because of its pictographs of animals. That night, after driving a total of 69 miles, we camped at Wheatfields Campgrounds and bathed in its icy lake. Pine trees and lake gave it the atmosphere of the Northwest rather than the Navajo reservation.

I was ready for the change of pace of the final three days of the trip -- a closer look at present day Indian life. At trading posts, curio shops cum supermarkets, grocery prices are comparable to those in New York, but meat counters surpassed the finest butcher shops.

Slim young Navaho women shoppers wear jeans, but their more amply built mothers favor long skirts, multiple petticoats, velveteen jackets and an array of heirloom turquoise and silver whose prices would break most Anglos. Billed caps are the prevalent male headdress, but an occasional elder retains the chongo,m a sort of bound pony tail, and Western hat. Whether Navahos are losing their old ways or following their tradition of appropriating what suits them, I could not say. I do know the incongruities -- such as florescent lights on exposed cottonwood beams -- are arresting.

Shopping at trading posts did not interest me. We stopped at a minimum of one a day to buy fresh meat and soda. Those we visited were Cameron, Tuba City, which did offer a good selection of rugs, Kayenta, Begay and Keams Canyon. Two atypical ones which offered a glimpse of the past were Gouldings in Monument Valley and Hubbell Trading Post, a national historic site, which is preserved as it was when John Lorenzo Hubbell traded for rugs and paintings and lined his walls with books from the East.

Because Alan Strumpf has many friends among the bilingual Hopi, we were welcomed as friends, especially on First Mesa where we spent most of out time and where we camped. Traditionally, Hopis lived on mesas, high rocky sharply sloping hills which were good defenses against enemy attack. First Mesa is a megalopolis of sorts where three villages blend into one -- Hano, started by the Tewa tribe under Hopi protection; Middle Village, or Sichomovi; and Walpi which has been inhabited since before the Spanish contact.

To the Hopi, creating museum-worthy baskets and pots is as natural as planting corn. It is as if every artist were born to the Wyeth family, except that skills and secrets are passed from mother to daughter. Pottery is the tradition of First Mesa, basketry of the Second and Third. As for male artistic expression, the form is the religiously significant carving of kachina dolls, wooden figures that are visible representations of spirits.

Personal checks are not always welcome on the reservations, so bring small bills. A miniature pot is around $12; the larger ones are $40 and up. Baskets and wicker plaques start around $100; kachina dolls at $50. Navajo blankets vary in price according to size and workmanship, plan on spending at least $250.

Evidences of Hopi art production are everywhere. Bricks of sheep dung, found to be the best fuel, are stacked neatly beside outdoor kilns. Women chew yucca sticks to make brushes for painting pottery, then dip them into little plastic cups of natural dyes.

Kachinas came to life the last day we were there when we witnessed the corn ceremony --kilts and jackets, their heads covered by wooden masks, eagle feathers, and juniper collars. They danced and chanted as townspeople walked around them scattering corn in hopes of a good harvest.

Photography and sketching are expressly forbidden. I was even stopped from taking notes, but my paper was returned when they pronounced my writing illegible. In the middle of the day, clowns climbed down from the roofs on chain ladders and performed stunts and pratfalls worthy of Barnum & Bailey. Their role was not only to relieve the day's solemnity, but to test the dancers' concentration. The calendar of ceremonials changes throughout the year -- men act as clowns or dancers in various rites, advancing through the ranks much as Anglo lodge members.

Instead of destroying their culture, some Anglo anthropologists are helping Indians regain their history and ancient pottery techniques. I no longer think the Indian was in better tune with nature solely because of spiritual development. They "conquered" natures as much as their primitive technology could in order to make their lives easier. Had they more forceful methods they might have been less ecological.

Gray Line offers one-day Nava-Hopi Tours of Sunset Crater National Monument for about $15 per person and of Indian trading posts for $26.50. Both depart from Flagstaff. Phone (212) 397-2600 or (602) 774-5003.

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